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Western democracy needs a new narrative

The democratic narrative offered, among other things, a better national society – a more perfect union and greater equality among all. The economic story turned the focus towards individual flourishing.

Betty Sue Flowers
27 April 2017
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It may be important to remember how the new narratives have always come under attack... In Fashion before Ease; —or,— A good Constitution sacrificed for a Fantastick Form (1793), James Gillray caricatured Paine tightening the corset of Britannia; protruding from his coat pocket is a measuring tape inscribed "Rights of Man", 1793. Wikicommons/James Gillray. Public Domain.

Those of us who have worked with scenarios know that one of the reasons why they can create such a powerful platform for dialogue and transformation is that they are stories. We experience stories through our imaginations, not just through our logical minds, so we partly help create them as we listen to them. We are in them. We watch the imaginary movie and supply details that may not have been in the original. We respond emotionally to a fiction just as we do to a fact-based story. And our ideals of a better future are embedded in stories that embody our values.

The idea of democracy is in crisis. Western democracies themselves are not appreciably weaker or poorer, but their voters are discontent and express that anger by leaning towards candidates whose style, at least, seems to challenge the Enlightenment ideals on which democracy was founded.  “Come let us reason together” seems a very weak prologue to action these days.

One reason for this crisis is that the story on which democracy is based is so taken for granted that it operates as a platform for the present rather than as a galvanizing vision for the future. The “rights of man” was a thrilling idea when it was new. Imagine the possibilities! Now that many of these visions have been accepted as common understanding, our founding story has morphed into a collection of laws. The dynamism of a future scenario is now a static playing field of rules. And the game that is played on that field is based on another narrative altogether – an economic myth. The “rights of man” was a thrilling idea when it was new. Imagine the possibilities!

Beginning with the triumph of democracy, another visionary story arose in the west – a narrative of prosperity for all. The nineteenth and much of the twentieth century was animated by this story, which offered various future scenarios for achieving this prosperity (communism; capitalism; fascism; democratic socialism) until it seemed proven that the most effective way to achieve this vision was freedom for enterprise and a global economic playing field.

The economic myth is the first truly global myth because it can operate even where democracy is weak. It tells the story of the good of all as a by-product of the activities of individual actors, where individual enterprise is more important than community health. In some ways this myth arose naturally out of the democratic myth, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual. And, like the democratic story, it has largely succeeded. The world is richer – but unequally so.

The democratic narrative offered, among other things, a better national society – a more perfect union and greater equality among all. The economic story turned the focus towards individual flourishing. And if critics of capitalism are to be believed, the inevitable outcome of our economic narrative is increasing inequality. Those on the bottom who feel their futures are hopeless are reaching out for a new story.  But all they are offered are empty promises that point back to the past as a better time. Those on the bottom who feel their futures are hopeless are reaching out for a new story.  But all they are offered are empty promises that point back to the past as a better time.

What new narrative is possible? The new story would have to honor both the dignity of the individual and the health of the global community as a whole. It would have to appreciate the economic fruits of globalization and technological advancement while at the same time supporting those who have been left behind.

So far, at least, we have not been able to move beyond the binaries of the old stories we’ve told in the past – of nations and their enemies and of interest groups against other interest groups in a zero-sum economic struggle. But a possible new narrative is emerging from the global economic myth – a story of global sustainability, which recognizes the interconnection of all human beings and the worth of individuals, including individual vulnerable species. This is a third way of seeing, which takes into account both the part and the whole and offers solutions beyond winners and losers.

Such a story, now in its infancy, would move from the values of economic growth to those of global well-being (which includes growth, but not as the supreme value). And it would make visible the web of life in which we are all interconnected.

For an increasing number of people around the world, this new story is already alive with possibility. But we have not yet reached the stage at which it becomes “common sense” for everyone that the well-being of each is connected to the well-being of all and of the planet. When the rights of man became common sense during the Enlightenment, we began to imagine new ways of organizing our lives together as a community. The new narrative, in which we look to the health of the global whole rather than to the growth of national economies, would lead to a system of self-government unlike any we’ve seen before. This is a third way of seeing, which takes into account both the part and the whole and offers solutions beyond winners and losers.

We haven’t invented this new system yet. You could say we’re at the Magna Carta stage of this vision as scientists, policymakers, and enlightened citizens work together throughout the world, holding complex dialogues and hammering out voluntary agreements. But for this understanding of our interconnectedness to become common sense, we will need a new narrative of the future of democracy to be made universally vivid first.

How might such a narrative arise? One beginning might involve engagements of citizens in scenario-building – diverse plausible stories of the future that offer platforms for discussion that go beyond partisan fights. For example, rising dissatisfaction with the war on drugs in the American hemisphere led leaders of the Organization of American States (the OAS) to organize a scenario-building process involving a team with representatives from countries throughout the hemisphere and from very many different points of view.  Such a group would be unlikely to agree on any one solution to the drugs problem in the hemisphere. But through working together on four different stories of the future, a new kind of dialogue began to emerge as well as new possibilities for change. The scenarios were published in a report that was called “game-changing” (Royal Institute for International Affairs) and “both useful and novel” (Financial Times). Through working together on four different stories of the future, a new kind of dialogue began to emerge as well as new possibilities for change.

The government of Slovenia is currently working on a vision for its future that has involved citizens throughout the country in vision workshops and scenario building. One theme that has emerged is the need for “trust” among citizens. While it is difficult for metrics to be devised for “trust,” the dialogue that has emerged from the Slovenian foresight project has led to a new government emphasis on citizen well-being, not just national economic growth, as an explicit aim of government policy. 

These and other foresight projects around the world, even at the city level, offer hope that a new narrative for democracy will indeed emerge – one that takes into account our interconnected destiny and highlights citizen well-being and the health of the planet over a narrow emphasis on economic growth.

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